Of Libraries and Time shortages

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to introduce some of my latest acquisitions in public, every now and then. Despite my regular blabbering-on regarding all kinds of nothingness, there’s still some room left to discuss bits and pieces such as books and novels – stuff written by others, (to be) read by yours truly. If you were paying attention while browsing through this website’s contents, you might have noticed the “Currently reading/ learning” & “To-do Pile” stacks on the right-hand side of your screen.

I’ve basically got rid of most of my initial to-do pile, save for two books I actually bought during my stay in Ieper (these are bound to circle the drain of procrastination forever). As of late, I’m rebuilding said pile whilst simultaneously browsing through potentially-interesting material; as a result, things might shift from one pile to another without my mentioning it. School has taken up large chunks of my free time, which is why I haven’t had the time to invest large amounts of effort on reading one (or two) books in particular.

With several new libraries at my disposal (all conveniently located within the same city of Leuven), I must admit to having felt overwhelmed initially. If you’re a frequent reader, you’ll probably recognize the feeling of not-knowing exactly what to pick up next – whereas there’s probably more than enough to choose from. Personally, I usually resort to looking up a few “broad” subjects, compress those into a certain era and subsequently collect the resulting trickling down of information into half a dozen of references.

Take the “Inter-war” period, for instance. A mere twenty years or so of supposed calm and quietness – in reality nothing but a maelstrom of failing recovery and catastrophic build-ups. Successful revolutions in the wrong places; failing diplomacy for all the right reasons; an inevitable Armageddon almost-entirely overshadowed by a previous monstrosity. A period of extreme importance to my current study (and possible career) as, during these years, the Soviet union came to fruition through hardship and suffering, only to end up as a major player that influenced the course of history like few others before it. My local library hardly proved adequate to quench my thirst for more information on the Inter-war era.

A silly name either way, “Inter-war”. There was plenty of shooting and killing going on during those two decades of assumed tranquillity: Poland and The Red Army were having a go at each other (all the way from Kiev to the river banks of the Vistula), with the latter still suffering the brutal consequences of three years of civil war and internal turmoil. Japan sought to expand its empire through Manchuria; Hitler rose to power only to reign down terror upon entire populations, Italy embraced fascism and went on a brawl through Ethiopia. The Inter-war period, then, was filled from top to bottom with suffering and despair; only less-transparently so compared to the global conflicts encapsulating it.

Two of such wars – “local wars” if you will – trickled down from the chunky subject in front of me: a database housing pretty much all works related to the Inter-war era, directly available for reservation and picking-up. The first one was the struggle for power in the newly-independent state of Finland, featuring a Swedish-speaking commander-in-chief, formerly-serving in the Imperial Russian army: Gustaf Mannerheim. A while ago, I already dedicated a stilted little poem to this man, venting my frustration of being able to find any elaborate material on this particular person.

Well, Leuven’s University Library proved to be quite a fertile basis for more in-depth analyses and biographies on people such as Mannerheim. A simple search provided a dozen references, and out of those I’ve selected J.E.O. Screen’s “Mannerheim – the Finnish Years” as the object of my affection. Quite compact in terms of pages (just under 300) as well as scope (1917-1951), it seems light enough for an amateur-historian to digest; perhaps wetting my appetite for further reading (Screen’s “Mannerheim: the Years of Preparation”, for instance) eventually. I wasn’t familiar with this particular author’s previous works – but as far as I can tell from browsing a few pages, I’m in for a pleasant couple of days worth of reading.

My other “loaner” is Antony Beevor’s “The Battle for Spain”. Obviously, I’ve come across Beevor’s work before – I’d almost go as far as to say that his reputation alone would lead me to buy/loan one of his books. The truth, however, is even more beautiful: I was simply looking for something “generic” or “comprehensive” on the Spanish Civil War (1936-’39), on which I found myself lacking in terms of even basic knowledge. To find Beevor’s name on the cover of a 500-page summary of one of Spain’s most traumatic experiences in modern history… well, let’s just say I felt like a happy camper whilst picking up “The Battle for Spain” at the University Library’s collection desk.

To add to all of this, I’ve bought myself a copy of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” (a title translated into “The Innocents”, “De Onschuldigen” in Dutch. It’s supposedly mandatory literature for next semester, and I thought it to be handy to get a head start while I was at it.

I’ve read a few pages so far, but this would seem like the typical novel you’d have to devote some time and attention to, so as to fully appreciate the literary skills oozing through both ink and the paper it was printed on. There’s no real rush in finishing this one as it is (it’s mine after all), so I’ll probably shift it towards the “To-do pile” for now; but who knows, perhaps I’ll give it a whirl come November.

It doesn’t look like I’m going to finish “War & Peace” any time soon, so that one’s going back to sit on the shelves of my local library tomorrow; I’ll probably try me some Tsjechov or Pushkin instead. I know, I know: it’s aching towards profanity, but I feel true literature deserves one’s undivided attention – and right now, that’s not what I can offer Tolstoj’s magnum opus, if only because of its sheer size and scope. Rest assured, I’ll give it another go eventually.

Same for Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” – I’m sure I’ll be able to fully appreciate it well-before turning 80.

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